After Padma bridge milestone, Sheikh Hasina faces challenges at home and abroad

The festivities associated with the Rath Yatra commenced in Bangladesh on Saturday, with a large rally in Dhaka and similar programmes in different parts of the country.

The heavily-guarded Rath Yatra events are being held following the pandemic-induced hiatus of two years and the Durga puja attacks of last October. The occasion was mildly dented by an attack on a leading playwright Dr. Ratan Siddique, who was roughed up by a gathering outside his house in the northern part of the capital Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurating the Padma Bridge at Mawa point in Munshiganj on June 25, 2022.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurating the Padma Bridge at Mawa point in Munshiganj on June 25, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The crowd accused Mr. Siddique of being an “atheist” and raised pro-Pakistan slogans before the police arrived on the scene and resolved the tense situation. The incident brought back memories of attacks against atheist bloggers during 2013-16. Bangladesh Udichi Shilpigoshthi, the largest progressive cultural organisation of the country, protested against the attack as Dr. Siddique is a noted member of the organisation.

The nine-day long Rath Yatra festivity by the minority Hindu community is a significant symbolic event as the minorities of Bangladesh constitute a solid support base for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government. The celebration and the mob attack on Dr. Siddique point to the political challenges that PM Hasina will have to deal with in the coming months.

Sheikh Hasina’s 13-year-old government reached a major milestone with the inauguration of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge on June 25. The self-financed bridge — constructed by the China Major Bridge Engineering Co. Ltd — is the biggest connectivity project for the country and has emerged as a sign of the new-found economic confidence of Bangladesh in the world stage. The timely completion of the project comes ahead of her visit to the U.S. to attend the UN General Assembly and other world capitals in September.

The visit to the United Nations will highlight Prime Minister Hasina’s agenda in the multilateral venues where she requires major powers to show greater appreciation of the difficulties that her government has been facing in dealing with the Rohingya crisis since 2017. In recent months, there have been silent hints that Bangladesh may require India’s support also as a fellow democracy from South Asia — in dealing with critics of her government.

Call for ‘credible’ election

This requirement was felt on June 8 when the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas in an unusual move visited the Chief Election Commissioner, Kazi Habibul Awal, in the latter’s office and called for a “credible election”. “I will repeat again as I have said before that the U.S. doesn’t care who wins the election, we just want an election where the people of Bangladesh can choose who their leaders are,” said Ambassador Haas after the meeting. Before that the European Union too had called for a “credible, transparent and inclusive” election in the country that is expected to head to the polls next year.

Observers in Bangladesh have suggested that the growing pressure on the electoral front from the U.S. and the EU means that Dhaka would prefer to secure India’s solid support in dealing with the western powers. This cautious attitude of Dhaka was on display as Sheikh Hasina’s government avoided outright condemnation of the remarks on the Prophet by former BJP Spokesperson Nupur Sharma and leader Naveen Kumar Jindal. While maintaining a nuanced position on the Prophet-controversy, Dhaka has been noncommittal regarding a visit of Ms. Hasina to India in July, ostensibly to avoid any criticism from the fundamentalist sections. The Hindu had reported that the visit may be part of her global schedule for September, though much depends on the internal developments in India.

Dhaka is on a strong wicket as far as protection of religious freedom of minorities is concerned as displayed by the Rath Yatra of Friday, however, the ride to a more evolved democracy with full participation of Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party is a challenge that will unfold in the coming months.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2022 7:39:59 am |